Get Out There
(page 2 of 8)
THE SMOKY MOUNTAIN BIKE RANCH
Idaho's Coolest Training Ground
To ensure safety on the tracks, all the coaches at the Bike Ranch are certified mountain bike instructors. Photo courtesy Bike Ranch, Jennifer Biondi.
Three summers ago, the Idaho Smoky Mountain Lodge decided to open a ranch, but instead of breeding cattle, this home on the range raises mountain bikers.
Better known as the only fly-in heli-ski lodge in the lower 48 states, the Smoky Mountain Lodge now offers a summer option for serious mountain bikers and folks who want to get out of Dodge for a while. But don’t worry, grazing on this ranch doesn’t require any hot iron branding.
The goal of Smoky Mountain’s Bike Ranch is to teach comfort and safety while riding, specifically when it comes to technical maneuvers. “As a mountain guide, I want to keep you safe and show you where the good stuff is,” said Mark Baumgardner, who owns the lodge. “Much like what we’ve done with heli-skiing, we want to do with bike ranching.”
According to Baumgardner, there’s been lots of synergy between Smoky Mountain’s well-established heli-skiing operation and the growing mountain biking program. As he explained, “People who stay at the lodge in the winter often ask, ‘What do you do in the summer?’ It’s a very easy segue.”
Yet until recently, Baumgardner didn’t have an answer to that question. He bought the 160-acre property, originally a mining claim, in the early 1990’s to serve as a no-frills base and fuel cache for Sun Valley Heli-Ski. A Canadian-style lodge was eventually built in 2001, leaving only the summer season on the property to be filled. Friends suggested that Baumgardner build a private trail network and the idea took off.
After connecting with Dirt Series instructor Jennifer Biondi, who now runs the program, ranch construction began. What have the two created since? “We have a BMX track. We have a pump track. We have a trail network and it keeps building every year,” she said. Stunt features, like A-frames and teeter-totters, are produced on-site by the lodge’s own sawmill and can be found throughout the nearby woods and meadows. Said Baumgardner, “You learn to ride these things without consequences. If you fall off, it’s no big deal, so you’re able to build your skills and confidence up before taking it to the trail.”
The idea of taking mountain bike lessons is, however, still new. “The challenge is convincing people that this is a valuable experience,” said Baumgardner. Yet as a heli-ski guide he sees real parallels. “Everything is based on progression. It’s very much like teaching skiing,” he explained. Bike Ranch customers receive personal attention throughout the day from the lodge’s team of professional coaches, working on everything from bike-body separation and balance to braking and cadence. Feedback from the clinics has been positive. “It’s really amazing to see the progression,” said Baumgardner. “You truly get your skills dialed.” And that’s the idea: teaching clients how to dominate the difficult sections of their favorite trails by training on similar features at the Bike Ranch first. Where else can you session a pump track, dirt jumps and single track in the same day, not to mention getting a massage and a gourmet meal that evening?
Despite the progress, Baumgardner says his biker’s playground is far from finished. “Our hope down the road is to partner with the Forest Service to improve the single track network out there,” he says. With logging roads in abundance, including old pack trails from the area’s mining days, the potential for expansion is obvious. Even so, the current Idaho Smoky Mountain Bike Ranch has more than enough trails, tracks and coaches to satisfy any rider hoping to wrangle some new skills. -Alec Barfield